How devout the Iranians are to Islam
“Can Islam democracy?” This was the headline of the German media at the height of the events in Egypt in January / February 2011. Skipping the demand for democracy and freedom to the other states of the Arab world gives the impression that there is little doubt that "Islam can democracy" - to try again this dubious formulation.
A lot has been thought and written about the subject of “democracy” in the Islamic world over the past few decades. And attitudes have changed a lot over the decades.
In the following, the democracy and human rights discourse in Iran will be examined - from both a historical and a current perspective. The aim is to describe how democracy was viewed in the sixties and seventies by some well-known intellectuals of the time - namely, negatively. And the aim is to explain how the texts of some outstanding thinkers then turned to democracy at the beginning of the nineties.
This turn was a result of real Islamism, which had acted as a deterrent. However, democratic post-Islamism, as it is to be called here, required an argumentative embedding. In a state where democracy and human rights were considered un-Islamic - according to Ayatollah Khomeini's dictum - a reason had to be given as to why they are Islamic after all or at least not contradict Islam.
Democracy and violence
A striking event was decisive for the discourse of the sixties and seventies. This event, as was thought of who claimed to stand for democracy, conditioned the West. The talk is of the overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh: The US secret service overthrew Mossadegh because he had nationalized the Iranian oil reserves and brought the already fled dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back to the peacock throne. From this point on, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi expanded his dictatorial rule with American help. Since then, the democratic West has been seen as discredited in the eyes of many Iranian intellectuals.
Under the influence of this event, Mohammad Hosein Tabatabai (1903-1981) wrote Allame, the scholar, on democracy. He is considered the most learned in Iran because he is the author of the most important Shiite commentary on the Koran of the 20th century, the Tafsir al-mizan. Tabatabai was also a philosopher, representing a discipline that was little appreciated by the clerical establishment, but all the more so among young clergymen.
Tabatabai went public in 1961 with a text about the political rule of the clergy. Until then, it had been accepted that any political rule would be illegitimate until the twelfth Imam returned. Therefore the clergy should not rule, but should practice patient waiting. In the 1950s, Hosein Boroujerdi, arguably the most important religious authority of the time, had decreed that secular rule should be recognized. Boroujerdi expected more continuity and respect for Islamic laws from the monarchy than from a republican system, and he had forbidden any dissenting opinion. Most of the clergy, including Ayatollah Khomeini, followed him in this stance without protest, but now his death in 1961 had triggered the question of who was the legitimate ruler in a Shiite state.
What Tabatabai formulates as an answer to the question of legitimate rule must be seen against the background of a monarchy that calls itself constitutionalist and claims to be democratic: it has a prime minister, elections and a parliament. Tabatabai seems to assume, or at least claim, that this state corresponds to what is called democracy in the West. This is probably due to the support the Shah is receiving from the West. So because the Iranian system claims to be a democracy and is nevertheless tyrannical, Tabatabai turns away from democracy as a whole. Tabatabai writes:
It has been more than half a century since we accepted the rule and rules of democracy and took our place in the ranks of the advanced Western countries. Yet we see our condition getting worse and worse every day. And from this tree, which is full of blessings and fruits for others, we only pick the fruits of misfortune and shame.
It is true that Tabatabai does not directly demand political leadership from the legal scholars instead of democracy and only declares that he considers democracy as a form of government to be discredited. But on the other hand, he says clearly that the people need some kind of uncle who looks after the orphans like a guardian. The guardian must be a legal scholar because only such a person is just. He has authority to manage, velayat, about the people too, because this is a law of Islam.
The reception of Western cultural criticism
The fundamental question of whether one should emulate the West and thus its system of government or reflect on one's own was not limited to the clergy in the 1960s. For the secular intellectuals too, the most important topic was the confrontation with the West, with its ideas, its culture and its effects on Iran. The secular intellectuals of those years were at the same time inspired by the West, but were also critical of it. After Hiroshima and Vietnam, Algeria, the Cold War and Soviet expansionism, liberalism and socialism had lost their appeal as ideas, and many Iranian thinkers joined the criticism that Western intellectuals like Albert Camus, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Jean- Paul Sartre put it.
This was especially true of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969), who translated some of these authors into Persian. In 1962, Al-e Ahmad published the essay Gharbzadegi,TheObsession with the West or literally Being beaten by the west. Here he wrote:
I say gharbzadegi, infestation from the West, like being infested with cholera (vaba zadegi). Or if you don't like it, like a sunstroke (garma zadegi) or like a frostbite (sarma zadegi). Or no. It is at least like bedbugs (senzadegi). Have you seen how they spoil wheat? Inside. Wheat stands with a whole shell, but it is only a shell. Like the cover that remains on the tree from the butterfly. In any case, there is talk of a disease.
If there has been a single really influential text in modern Iranian history, it is this, it is commonly said in Iranian research. Gharbzadegi is considered the "holy book" of several generations. This essay provided the vocabulary of Iranian social criticism for over two decades and formulated the essence of the anti-Western disposition of the discourse. Al-e Ahmad's theses were formative for all intellectuals, and presumably on the eve of the revolution there was no one who would have doubted Al-e Ahmad's analysis of Iranian society.
Al-e Ahmad claimed that Iran’s disease is thoughtless adoption of Western behaviors and ideas. Although he did not attack democracy directly, he rediscovered Islam as the only authentic component of Iranian culture. Al-e Ahmad explained to an astonished, secular audience the potential power and power of religion and declared the clergy to be the most important part of the authentic identity: the clergy were the only ones who evaded the negative influence of the West, and it was Islam who prevented the West from Christianizing, colonizing and exploiting Iran. As the most important secular intellectual of the sixties, Al-e Ahmad made Islam an issue - and in doing so, he paved the way for the greatest and most powerful critic of democracy of the seventies.
Progress through revolution
Ali Shari'ati (1933-1977) influenced the generation that would later make a revolution to shake off Western influence in a way that can hardly be overestimated. One of his most influential texts and the aforementioned article by Tabatabai, together with Ayatollah Khomeini's now famous lecture on the Islamic government, have exactly the same thrust: They all criticize the West in general and are therefore against democracy and instead for an Islamic government. It should be ignored here how naively and uncritically the three authors view the government they describe as Islamic, or how flawed their definition of Western democracy is. The point is to establish that the West, and with it the idea of democracy, was attacked so vigorously by these three thinkers and the wise leader was praised so highly that the turn of an entire generation of students to Islamism was almost inevitable. All of them had been intellectually socialized by these thinkers, and when Ali Shari'ati wrote that while the West claimed that democracy was the form of government that respected human rights most, hundreds of thousands followed him. Shari‛ati wrote:
We owe colonialism, which brought mass murder of peoples, destruction of cultures, riches, histories and civilizations of non-European people, to the governments that were democratically elected, governments that believed in liberalism. These crimes were not committed by priests, inquisitors and Caesars, but in the name of democracy and western liberalism.
But not only the behavior of the democrats speaks for Shari'ati against democracy. Another question he asked was whether democracy is in the interests of the backward masses in any place, in any society, at any time. Shari‛ati's objections were primarily directed against democracy as a form of government for Iran. You cannot achieve what he believes is most important with her: progress. Shari'ati wanted revolutionary change, but considered it unthinkable that the Iranian people would vote for the government that would bring it about, namely what Shari'ati wrote, Imamitic leadership. Shari'ati even considers their totalitarian policy to be justifiable, because otherwise they would have no chance against the wagons of the persistent forces.
The next thinker to help one-man leadership prevail over democracy after the 1978/79 revolution was of course Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989). Khomeini's criticism of the Shah's government in the 1960s initially concerned the increasing state control, especially in the judiciary, overall secularization and the associated weakening of Islamic institutions, state repression and the influence of the USA on politics.
Exiled to Najaf because of this criticism, Khomeini held a series of lectures in the winter of 1971, which were written down and entitled Hokumat-e eslami, "The Islamic Government", was published. It contains Khomeini's basic ideas about the instructions of Islam, the Islamic State, the necessity of creating such a state, and its objectives. To a large extent, however, the lecture reads like an anti-imperialist pamphlet: The only true Iranian identity is Islamic, so only a return to Islam can save the country from ruin. That is why Khomeini attacks the clergy who stay away from politics. According to Khomeini, a false, because apolitical, Islam is being taught in theological universities today. The clergy had adopted a colonialist attitude and would now believe for themselves what the exploiters, oppressors and colonialists wanted them to believe: that Islam and the state and politics should be separated. In contrast, Khomeini claims that there has been a consensus among the clergy for centuries that the clergy should assume the duties of prophet and imams. He justifies this as follows:
First, there is historical evidence that the prophet founded a state. [...] Second: by order of God, he has appointed a ruler for the time after his death. If God the Exalted appoints a ruler for society after the prophet, it means that the state is necessary even after the prophet's demise. And since the prophet communicated God's instruction in his will, he thereby declares the necessity of establishing a state.
Another argument from Khomeini is the fact that God revealed a law, such as the penal law. This must therefore also be applied. In doing so, however, Khomeini deliberately ignores the fact that, in the opinion of most, the implementation of the criminal law is one of the prerogatives of the rapt twelfth Imam and is therefore exposed to great obscurity according to the traditional Shiite view. Khomeini postulates with a certainty that there is no contradiction:
No one can say that it is no longer necessary to […] pay or collect taxes, poll tax, fifth tax and alms tax, and that criminal law, blood money and the right to retaliation will be suspended.
More important than this controversial line of argument, however, was that Khomeini perfectly suited the role that Shari‛ati had described. Anyone who heard and read Shari'ati's statements about the Imamite leadership would think of Khomeini in the 1970s - the rebellious cleric who railed against the Shah from Iraq. Shari‛ati gained a huge number of followers for Khomeini, presumably more than his own work on the Islamic State, which hardly anyone knew, understood or took seriously. Shari‛ati, on the other hand, was considered cosmopolitan because he had received his doctorate in sociology in Paris. He was a rousing speaker, a charismatic, well-read, and handsome. Thousands hung on his every word when he was in the Tehran meeting place in the 1970s Hosseini-ye ershad spoke.
Shari'ati by no means favored them velayat-e faqih, the guidance of a legal scholar, as Khomeini had described it. Shari‛ati does not take up the idea; it cannot even be said whether he was aware of Khomeini's lecture. In addition, Shari‛ati certainly had no clergy in mind as the prototype of the leader, because he was very critical of the clergy. Regardless of this, the concept of democracy could not be translated into the Iranian context: neither practically nor theoretically. In pre-revolutionary Iran in the 1970s, the idea that competed with the idea of democracy, the idea of a - if you will - philosopher's state was more successful. The result was the establishment of the so-called system in 1979 velayat-e faqih, the reign of the Supreme Legal Scholar.
Iran has been calling itself the "Islamic Republic of Iran" since the 1978/79 revolution. In fact, the Iranian system, which is unique in the world in terms of state structure, has republican elements, even if these are consistently undermined by the theocratic ones. In the run-up to the vote on the future form of government, Khomeini had explicitly opposed the term "Democratic Islamic Republic"; he had declared that the nation wanted an Islamic republic, not just a republic, not a democratic republic, not an Islamic democratic republic. One shouldn't use the term "democratic", because that is a Western concept. The fact that republic is also a Western concept was deliberately ignored by Khomeini.
Iran has not become more democratic since Khomeini declared his rejection of democracy in 1979, but the discourse on democracy has changed completely in recent years. An example of this is Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (born 1936). Shabestari is one of Iran's most important thinkers today. He too was intellectually socialized through Shari'ati, Tabatabai and Khomeini, but has since emancipated himself from their views. Shabestari made a very clear plea for democracy. He advocates democracy for several reasons: For example, it does not contradict the will of the Creator - which Khomeini would have denied.
Shabestari's central argument, however, is that democracy realizes what Imam 'Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites, demanded of the ideal government in his government mandate. 'Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, appointed Malik al-Ashtar to be his governor in Egypt during his tenure as Caliph and gave him a government mandate to take with him. Western Islamic studies doubt the authenticity of this document, but that is irrelevant for the question of its effectiveness. Regardless of this, the government mandate occupies a very central position in the Shiite state philosophy. 'Ali explains to his governor how he should rule in order to be sure of God's good pleasure. The government mandate is therefore considered normative for good governance in the Schia.
Because the government mandate is seen by most Shiites as normative, Shabestari plays with his argument on a well-known keyboard. The content of the government mandate justifies Shabestari's assertion that rule must first and foremost be one thing, namely just. Detailed or concrete instructions on the content, such as the need to apply the penal laws mentioned in the Koran by Khomeini, are not found in this document. Shabestari emphasizes this, too, and it is actually significant insofar as' Ali is considered by the Shiites to be the most important interpreter of the Koran. If 'Ali, the first Shiite imam, does not give instructions to his governor, such as this ius talionis or the hadd-To apply penalties, he obviously did not understand the Koran as if this had to be done. Instead, 'Ali wrote to his governor:
Oh Malik, be righteous to God and the people. Whoever oppresses the servants of God makes an enemy of God and also of those whom he oppresses. The worst that can happen to a people and that irrevocably arouses the wrath of God and his retribution is oppression and tyranny over the creatures of God. The ruler should beware of this, for the merciful God hears the calls of the oppressed.
From an empirical point of view, Shabestari said, democracy, which is to be regarded as the form of government that most effectively prevents oppression and tyranny, fulfills the most essential criterion set by Imam 'Ali for good governance. For Shabestari it is decisive, and thus he is by the way completely in the tradition of the constitutionalist movement of the years 1906 to 1911, that democracy is a form of rule that prevents tyranny - and creates justice.
Abdolkarim Soroush (born 1945), probably the most important intellectual in Iran, sees it similarly. In the early 1990s, Soroush, who can look back on the same socialization as Shabestari, turned away from Islamism and began the idea of a so-called hokumat-e demukratik-e dini, a religious-democratic government. In his opinion, a government can be both religious and democratic, because religious rules that contradict democracy could be reinterpreted. Soroush has pleaded for this in numerous of his writings and argued them with the theory of the so-called "Theoretical narrowing and expansion of Sharia".
The religious democracy that Soroush envisions is no different from conventional Western democracy, and his acceptance of human rights is not conditional but absolute. This is remarkable insofar as Ayatollah Khomeini still described human rights as a collection of corrupt norms that were devised by the Zionists in order to destroy all true religions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was criticized in this sense by Iran, but also by Sudan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for the lack of inclusion of the cultural and religious references of the non-Western countries. Voices were raised that viewed it as a secular interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition that Muslims could not follow without breaking Islamic law.
Religion as the conscience of society
Soroush, on the other hand, argues that there are in principle also extra- or meta-religious values and rights. These are not justified by religion, but also do not contradict it. Basically, no reasonable law or law can contradict religion - and certainly not Shiite Islam, which is particularly rational-oriented. To give an example of what Soroush means: While the Sunnis say that lying is bad because the religion says so, the Shiites - in the tradition of the Mutazilites, the great rationalists of Islam - think that lying is bad, says this also the religion. For this very reason, Soroush believes, Shiites should accept human rights, because they are simply one thing, sensible.
Soroush also questions Khomeini's claim that Islamic law must be applied. Unlike Khomeini, it is more important to him that the soul of the government is religious. His argument is: It is not a society in which Islamic law is applied that is religious, but a society in which people voluntarily profess their faith. Just by applying the Sharia one does not create a "religious society", but only "one that lives according to Islamic law". For Soroush, however, it is more important than the application of Islamic law that a religious act is also based on a pious drive. But this piety cannot be enforced.
Hypocrisy and pretense are the bigger sins, not alcohol consumption and gambling. But in the government of Islamic law, more importance is attached to external action than to appropriation of the heart.
Soroush's ideal is a religious state in which faith rules, but not as a legislative or political authority, but as the spirit and conscience of society. Their goal is piety, which can only be realized through freedom. In Soroush's utopia of the Islamic state, freedom is a necessary, godly precondition for freely chosen religiosity and thus an argument for the superiority of the democratic order. There is no formal difference between Soroush's religious-democratic government and a normal democratic government. Soroush writes:
Indeed, one need not expect a religious government to be any different in nature from a non-religious one. It is also not the case in this world that reasonable people walk on two legs and religious people on their heads. What is wrong with it if the peoples of other societies have accepted the same methods of government as we encountered through our definition of religious government?
Here a traditional standard is translated into a modern principle or a modern standard. As vernacularization this is what the ethnologist Sally Engle Merry called. Or as framing. This type of translation seems very helpful and cannot be rejected as apologetic: that framing democracy as a key Islamic concept of justice mobilizes society to strive for this social and political goal. Yet another reason is framing necessary. Only when ideas like democracy are really appropriated - the philosopher Seyla Benhabib called this process iteration - the suspicion of western paternalism is lost.
How much the attitude towards democracy has changed is not only evident in the positions of progressive thinkers like Shabestari and Soroush in Iran nouandishan-e eslami, literally "Islamic New Thinkers", are called "Islamic Newthinkers". It can also be seen in the reaction of the non-Democrats. The current President of Parliament Ali Larijani (born 1958), for example, refers to Lincoln’s dictum that democracy is the government of the people by the people for the people. In that sense, he says, the Iranian system is also that velayat-e faqih, a democracy, after all, be that too velayat-e faqih "for the people," and the other two components are less important and negligible, he argues. Revolutionary leader Khamenei (born 1939) argues in the same way.
Democracy as a yardstick
What matters is not how nonsensical this statement is. What is more important is that democracy has evidently become so much the norm and the general yardstick by which one is willing to be measured that these two prefer to declare their own system as democracy rather than rejecting democracy all around - like a few decades ago Khomeini had done it with great self-confidence. Of course, their definition of democracy leaves much to be desired, but it still offers the democracy theorists Soroush and Shabestari other starting points, even if the undemocratic rulers begin to get involved with the concept of democracy.
What is significant, however, is that theorists like Soroush and Shabestari have an argumentative embedding of democracy, an inner-Islamic one framing have given. Whether it is actually thanks to them that the Iranian people seem more ready for democracy today than ever (that is the impression given when one looks at the events of recent years) is another question. But having an Islamic justification for democracy certainly can't hurt.
The text is based on the author's inaugural lecture at the University of Zurich in May 2011 and was first published in German in the magazine Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2011.
Katajun Amirpur is the first German female professor to hold a chair for Islamic Studies and Theology. The 42-year-old teaches at the Hamburg Academy of World Religions.
© Goethe Institute. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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